The New Left Was Right
The earliest 1960s radicals opposed “corporate liberalism”—much like the Revolution today
By: Dylan Hayes
According to the popular mythology of the mainstream conservative movement, the “New Left” of the 1960s is responsible for almost all of this world’s current ills. As the story goes, while brave American GI’s were sloughing through the hell of Southeast Asia, ungrateful college kids and university brats were burning flags and bras while imbibing every illegal psychotropic substance known to man. The war against the Commies went south with the culture, and only Ronald Reagan was successful, if just temporarily, in saving us from this endless hippie excess.
Like most great historical myths, this one has some slivers of truth. Single parenthood, abortion on demand, drug abuse, and much of the hedonistic behavior condemned by the New Right of the Reagan years did explode during the 1960s. The unintended consequences of the sexual revolution combined with the rise of organized identity politics to contribute heavily to the ascent of the federal welfare state under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, as both presidents opposed socialism abroad while embracing it at home. “Yes We Can!” was first the cry of that generation, a legacy that remains with us today.
But what about the other truths, the rest of the story, and the best of the ’60s generation? Were all those students clamoring for a democratic society dangerous Marxoids devoid of manners or good sense? Could it be that a movement founded on a principled devotion to “free speech,” a fierce opposition to the managerial state, and a rigid do-it-yourself ethic lacked any qualities that this generation’s youthful anti-statists could learn from?
Though indictments of the radical youth movements that blossomed during the Age of Aquarius have become commonplace on the Right, they are far too broad in scope. The result has been a disproportionate demonization of a multifaceted movement whose best instincts and brightest minds were more quintessentially American than much of what passes for conservatism today.
Though often remembered as a bicoastal, big-city bonanza (New York City, San Francisco) the origins of the New Left lie in the American Midwest. The jump point occurred on June 12, 1962, when the youthful congregants of a beautifully random piece of flyover country known as Port Huron, Michigan met to declare their independence from the moribund and totally irrelevant consensus liberalism of the Kennedy era. They represented a marked departure from the Old Left of Soviet apologists and their obnoxious opponents in the anti-Communist social-democratic center. At Port Huron, an equally fractured but far more spirited authentic Left was born.
Though much has been written about Students for a Democratic Society, the group that met at Port Huron, its rightful place in history has never been fully established, primarily as a result of a mainstream media that has consistently glamorized the worst aspects of SDS while obscuring its uniquely American characteristics. The early days of SDS have been almost totally ignored, leaving one with the impression that the infamous Bill Ayers had been the epitome of the group from day one, when nothing could be further from the truth.
For those who associate that era with tear gas and townhouse explosions, the tranquility of the New Left’s opening salvos are almost impossible to fathom, as the early stages of the movement Karl Hess, Goldwater speechwriter and New Leftist were defined by a commitment to “participatory democracy.” In the beginning, there was no market for the sort of personality cult that ultimately led to the movement’s implosion. Consensus decision-making was a practiced principle and attempts to address the root of youth alienation were the impetus behind most SDS positions. As former SDS president Carl Oglesby noted in an interview with Reason: “SDS was founded to be a democratic organization, not to be socialist. Its most basic slogan was ‘People Should Be Involved in Making the Decisions that Affect Their Lives.’ That was what SDS was about. Whatever decision gets made, it should be democratic.”
Collectivism was unquestionably an implied outcome of the sort of grassroots democracy favored by many of the young activists. But early SDS activism was not the bureaucratic, top-down model of the Old Left. In fact, this New Left was deeply contemptuous of party lines and what their manifesto of principles—the Port Huron Statement—called “politics without publics”:
The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.
In promoting this civic philosophy of volunteerism, the New Left was expanding on Jeffersonian concepts and cultural ideals in line with the thinking of conservatives like Russell Kirk and commonly associated with the Populism that had littered the same Midwestern landscape 60 years earlier.
Like their Midwestern Populist forefathers, SDS was deeply suspicious of the Eastern power centers and financial institutions that controlled the domestic and foreign policies of the Republic. Though they occasionally overreached and made rash decisions, both Populists and the New Left sought to remove power from Washington and place it back into the hands of local agents who best understood the needs of their communities.
Self-declared enemies of “corporate liberalism,” the students at Port Huron had almost nothing in common with the Progressive movement that had taken over much of American Left in the early 20th century. Whereas the Progressives of then and now sought the extension of national power and the aggrandizement of bureaucracy for the “public good,” early SDSers sought to “dismantle the institutions” of social control and beat back the dangerous tide of military statism. The later splintering of the movement into various Maoist sects notwithstanding, the early days of the New Left were spent bitterly opposing such orthodoxies and critiquing the notion that such grandiose concepts could ever deliver on their promises.
The oppositional sentiment expressed by the early SDS was foreshadowed in 1956 when the ideological godfather of the New Left, C. Wright Mills released his magnum opus The Power Elite. Like the Port Huron Statement, The Power Elite is an inherently anti-Progressive text that takes a decidedly critical view of the corporatist state. According to the motorcycle-riding, hyper-individualist Mills:
As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women. They are not made by their job; they set up and break down jobs for thousands of others; they are not confined by simple family responsibilities; they can escape. They may live in many hotels and houses, but they are bound by no one community. They need not merely meet the demands of the day and hour; in some part, they create these demands, and cause others to meet them. Whether or not they profess their power, their technical and political experience of it far transcends that of the underlying population.
Though such criticisms were uncharacteristic on the liberal-left at the time, many conservatives of the era offered similar critiques of power. To cite just one example, James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World propounded a theory that closely paralleled Mills’s. Unfortunately for conservatives of that time, Burnham’s fierce anti-Communism led him to embrace the welfare-warfare state. Mills and the New Left did not fall victim to such follies.
In exposing the nexus between big business and big government, Mills’s book became a bible of sorts for baby boomers raised on the decommissioned scraps of World War II-era military Keynesianism. The children of the military-industrial complex had come home to roost, as all over the United States opposition to empire both home and abroad emerged as a dominant feature of youth culture.
The Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” exploded in the fall of 1964 after the University of California fiercely enforced a rule barring political activities that weren’t directly subordinate to the two major political parties. Led by Mario Savio, an amalgamation of libertarians, liberals, conservatives, and all points in-between participated in several protests and sit-ins that resulted in major concessions by the university. In a series of speeches—one of which was made on the roof of a police car holding another member of the FSM—Savio summed up the nature of the beast in a style rarely seen before or since: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop!”
The machine being discussed here wasn’t capitalism, it was the superstructure of the modern university and the cult of bigness that propped it up. Such decentralist rhetoric would resound again nearly 50 years later in the presidential campaign of a certain OB/GYN from the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The New Left also intersected with the various organizations and causes that made up the burgeoning Black Power movement. Though ethnic identity movements are often seen as antithetical to libertarian ideas, this myopic view only serves those who wish to stymie real challenges to entrenched power. In the early days of the radical civil rights movement, one could find a communitarian spirit sorely lacking in most of the establishment politics of the era, liberal or otherwise.
Consider the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Though the group’s Marxist platitudes and support of Mao would be deeply at odds with libertarians from any period, that troubling rhetoric did not necessarily match the reality. Led by the fiercely independent Fred Hampton, the Chicago BPP disavowed the cultural nationalist tendencies of other branches of the party and focused explicitly on promoting street autonomy. Though Hampton was not known to shy from confrontation, he publicly disavowed the senseless violence of the Weatherman faction when that SDS offshoot was still in its infancy. Just at the moment when other chapters of the Panthers were decaying into cesspools of violence and addiction, the Chicago outfit began to implement private welfare systems and education programs which, not surprisingly, led to direct conflict with state authorities.
When Hampton was murdered by the largest criminal gang in the city on Dec. 4th, 1969 there was no punishment for his killers. There never is when the killers are state-sanctioned agents. After Hampton’s political assassination, the chairmanship of the state party was taken over by Bobby Rush, the last man to defeat Barack Obama in an electoral encounter. At least the BPP produced someone who could beat Obama. What has the GOP given us?
Though contemporary accounts tend to separate the predominantly white New Left from the Black Power movement, the spirit of anti-authoritarianism was a shared and primary trait of both. Though the bombastic attitudes and Maoist mania of the Black Panthers eventually led to that group coming to define the very worst aspects of the time, the early Panthers embodied the self-determinist localism envisioned by many early American conservative icons. The ten-point program of the party included many overtly socialist proposals, to be sure, but its framework and implementation were a separate matter.
To put the Panthers and early New Left in perspective, how many modern-day proponents of the Second Amendment would actually form citizen militias to patrol the communities they reside in? How many would call for full and direct control over their children’s education? For that matter, how many would seriously question the role of federal power at all?
In organizing at the community level, the radical movements of the ’60s touched on a principle often fetishized by conservatives but rarely practiced. “Home rule” as a cause worth actualizing, rather than something slick politicians merely pay lip service to, is a principle that liberty-minded youth ought to take to heart. It is this sort of activity alone that can subvert the centralized political structure, something that will become increasingly necessary if our economic freefall continues.
At its heart, the best of the New Left went beyond mere criticism of institutions and cut right to the root problem—power itself. In fact, it was a former speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, SDS convert Karl Hess, who provided the simplest explanation of the problem. “Will men continue to submit to rule by politics, which has always meant the power of some men over other men,” he asked, “or are we ready to go it alone socially, in communities of voluntarism, in a world more economic and cultural than political”?
For conservative opponents of mass democracy, it is noteworthy that the “participatory democracy” of SDS was not mob rule at all, but an attempt to put the words of men like Hess into action. By disengaging from national politics and building a ground-up movement, the New Left was seeking a thorough devolution of America’s overgrown bureaucracies. The fear of “King Numbers” so eloquently guarded against by James Madison and friends had no stronger (or stranger) practical adherents than the kids of SDS.
When the Weatherman malcontents took to the streets, played revolutionary, and destroyed private property, they didn’t win any recruits. Nor did the phony class-antagonism of the egghead (and Maoist) Progressive Labor Party faction of SDS. By the end of 1968, the squabbling between these groups and others led to the total destruction of the movement and the descent of many of its adherents into total madness. Given the radical ideas and real threats to power expressed in the movement’s early days, it should surprise no one that government repression played a role in this. Still, the ultimate responsibility lies with those who corrupted an important and thoroughly American cause and replaced it with yet another cause celebre.
Despite the popular right-wing caricature of the movement today—or the foolish canonization of the post-’68 hippie free-for-all by many leftists—there are many worthwhile lessons to be drawn from the New Left. One could begin by asking a few questions relevant for our current predicament. Must the term “community organizer” be seen as a synonym for “communist”? Is it really beneficial to embrace bigness and international grandiosity at the expense of place and local custom? Do movements always have to be judged by their worst moments and most foolish figures?
One can rightly criticize the welfare statism of much of the New Left or the later excesses of its adherents without abandoning the notion that promoting civic values at the local level is an approach worth adopting, cherishing, and promoting. At the very least, surrendering the term “community” to the denizens of the Daily Kos hardly seems like a winning political tactic—or one with any relationship to the American political tradition conservatives
so frequently tout.
If one were looking to take the best aspects of the New Left and the best aspects of the Old Right and create a fresh political alternative out of them, one would find oneself smack dab in the middle of the Ron Paul Revolution of 2008. And this is the best hope we have.
Dylan Hales [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a freelance writer from Charleston, South Carolina. His blog, The Left Conservative, can be found at www.leftconservativeblog.blogspot.com.